On February 1, Myanmar’s armed forces overthrew their government. A month earlier, we saw how easily that could happen right here in the U.S. Can democracy be saved?
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I sit with an Aung San Suu Kyi coffee mug, listening to the BBC, and suddenly I can’t stop my tears. My heart rips for the people of Myanmar, some of the most dogged (small-d) democrats I have ever known—and now, they’ve just lost their toehold in democracy.
Early in the morning of February 1, the country’s armed forces seized control, declaring a one-year state of emergency, arresting de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (more on her below). Soldiers blocked the road to Parliament, phone lines and internet were cut for hours, and activists were detained. After a decade of nascent freedom, the Burmese people, once again, face life under military command.
I’m not sure how many Americans know where Myanmar is, or the history that preceded the coup earlier this month. But we ought to pay attention. The Burmese are among the best teachers of civics and social responsibility I know. When they speak of oppression, their stories are rooted in personal experience. Many Burmese writers and scholars have spent decades in prison. They’ve been beaten and tortured, their families threatened. I’ve known exiled journalists who hadn’t seen their mothers in years.
Here in the U.S., in recent times under Trump, a cesspool of lies, deceptions, and divisions bred rioters with cries of censorship amid appeals to hang a journalist or “murder the media.” But few Americans know the true meaning of censorship, or life without free speech and press. The Burmese know. Up until their country’s democratic transitions that began a decade ago, there was no independent news. There were no daily papers. All publications were required to submit their stories to government censors, who removed whatever they didn’t like. Journalists who defied the rules were routinely imprisoned and removed from the public eye. The Tatmadaw—the country’s armed forces—would erect giant red billboards with edicts to crush the enemy and follow the way of progress. Spies lurked on street corners, in tea shops. Citizens spoke in undertones. People disappeared, or had “unfortunate accidents.” A knock in the night was a sound to fear. In these ways, the junta ensured its survival.
My personal history with Myanmar dates back 18 years, to the first conversations I had with exiled Burmese journalists living in northern Thailand, working under the radar to publish a newspaper that was sold on the sly in the city’s nighttime market. They shared with me their stories of escape, of their fights for human rights, and the persistent desire for freedom. At that point, in 2002, the only autonomy they found was a neighboring country with a tolerance for undercover existence.
That year, my husband, Jerry, and I made our first visit to Burma (as it was then more commonly called). We traveled widely, to regions that saw a small trickle of tourists—and residents who ached for more, because tourism, despite the ethical debates, almost certainly helps the locals even if it also augments the tyrants.
We found people who wanted to talk—tour guides, taxi drivers, dissidents with memories that still haunt my yellowed notebooks. I doubt the people we met 18 years ago ever imagined a democratic election or Facebook or the possibility to live in the dreamlands they understood places like the US to be.
I doubt they could have envisioned America’s brush with insurrection this past month.
Over the years, I met many more Burmese journalists through media trainings in neighboring Thailand, where reporters from across the region gathered for weeks of intense reporting on pivotal issues. The Burmese exhausted me—in the very best ways. Their questions never ended, their pursuit of answers guided their paths through life. Some of them knew more about U.S. political history than many Americans have learned and subsequently forgotten.
Several years later, Jerry and I taught journalism workshops in Yangon and Mandalay under an (oddly, almost unbelievable) arrangement with the U.S. State Department, under Burmese government approval. (Our country has a history of such diplomatic doings: fostering a free press and espousing democracy in far-flung places, no matter what happens at home. Just as #45 vilified journalists, calling them “enemies of the people,” our government was simultaneously funding and sponsoring reporters and their investigations abroad.) At the time of our workshops, already there were subtle shifts in the sentiments of leaders behind closed doors: a semi-quiet desire for change. But not too much change, and not too fast: On the last day of our last training in Mandalay, we returned to a hotel lobby filled with cops and soldiers who ordered us onto an overnight train to Yangon, where we were put on a plane to Bangkok and our passports stamped “Deportee.”
That night on the train, two cops accompanied us in a stuffy, sweltering cabin with a frail little fan and air filled with fumes. The cops didn’t want to be there either. They were following orders. The next morning, they allowed me out to use the toilet, and on the way, I saw one of my students in a nearby car. I couldn’t tell her what was happening. I eventually slipped her a note, and watched the reality march across her face. For weeks I felt sick in my gut, wondering what the government might do to the people we worked with. (To my knowledge, thankfully, nothing ever happened).
For years, Jerry and I were on a blacklist of foreigners not allowed to return—not until the Burmese government began to change. Time unfolded for all of us, in parallel universes. Jerry and I traveled freely, on blue passports coveted around the world. Meanwhile, the Burmese lived in limbo, clinging to the hope that life could be different one day.
In 2009, I had the extraordinary fortune to guide a small group of Burmese journalists to the UN General Assembly and G20 Summit. President Obama was scheduled to speak, and the group waited hours for front-row seats. They failed— they got second row instead. Though they raised their hands with overwhelming anticipation, Obama never called on them. The president had no direct interaction with the Burmese. But I will never forget their tenacity. Their patience is borne through generations of hope.
This month, the Burmese people are filling the streets in cities across the country, and staging their peaceful uprising on social media. They’re calling for #CivilDisobedience and campaigning to #SaveMyanmar. They’re clanging pots and pans to show a united rejection of the military takeover. They’re asking for the world’s help. We hear from friends who say they are safe—for now. But people are bracing for what might come. Parents fear the future their young children might have to endure.
I think back to the day Jerry and I were deported. We had a brief encounter with an airport employee who was doing his job, ensuring our expulsion. But he wanted us to know it wasn’t his decision, or his desire. “Many people in Western countries think the government staff and the government are the same. We are not,” he told us. “We care for democracy.”
Spoken in a hush, under his breath.
I’m not sure anyone has taught me more about the value of freedom than the Burmese. When you’ve lived most your life in whispers, you know exactly what it means to emerge into a boisterous world of free speech. And you know exactly what it could mean to lose it all again.
Democracy takes maintenance. Freedom requires a caretaker. When insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I feared this country hadn’t understood enough about the hard labor of enduring liberty. I feared we had neglected our system for too long. Truth be told, it’s been easy for millions of Americans to just be—citizens with rights and few thoughts of the duties that go with them. Meanwhile, millions of others have suffered the consequences of that blind ease. The inequities are a recipe for collapse.
For a long time, I had painfully mixed feelings about my Aung San Suu Kyi coffee mug, a gift from a Burmese journalist friend. I couldn’t look at the mug without thinking of the Rohingya crisis that has devastated so many: tens of thousands killed, nearly a million displaced. Meanwhile, ethnic insurgencies across Myanmar underscore the country’s failure to unite. For all the hope I have witnessed among my Burmese friends, their country has floundered.
But the Burmese know far better than I: There is no simple fix to decades of injustice. There is only one choice: to persist. I realize now that I’d been looking at that mug in the wrong light. The image is a symbol—not of an ideal, but of many imperfections, and the will to keep working in order to overcome. The true democratic answer is to face the worst of flaws and the greatest of dangers with inexhaustible grit.
That mug is a chronicle of Burmese dreams.
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